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Study: Private prisons contribute millions to Bent, Crowley county coffers

Christian Burney
BC Democrat Online
Bent County Commissioners and members of CGL Companies and RPI Consulting hosted the second virtual public input hearing Tuesday evening to reveal findings of a prison utilization study conducted this year.

Two public input hearings on a recent prison utilization study occurred Monday and Tuesday evenings.

Crowley County Commissioners met with Gabe Preston of RPI Consulting and Karl Becker of CGL Companies, who presented their findings of a prison utilization study that stemmed from legislation passed this spring. Crowley/Otero Health Director Rick Ritter emceed both events.

The hearings were streamed live on Zoom and YouTube and are available for viewing on RPI Consulting's YouTube channel.

Local public officials have been vocal of their concerns about the futures of the CoreCivic private prisons in Bent and Crowley counties. The legislation that led to the prison utilization study being contracted to RPI Consulting originally pledged the closure of all privately owned correctional facilities in Colorado by 2025.

Despite that measure being dropped from the final drafts of the legislation, local officials are certain the Legislature intends to include private prison closures in future bills. The results of the prison utilization study and public opinion on the matter could impact what Southeast Colorado finds itself lined up for.

The findings reviewed Monday and Tuesday concentrated on three major areas of focus: Current and future statewide prison population trends; effects of the Bent and Crowley County correctional facilities on local government and service providers; and employment and income factors.

Colorado prisons landscape

In his breakdown of current state prison capacity, Becker said Colorado has capacity for about 18,000 inmate beds. With approximately 14,500 inmates across the state, Colorado has a prison vacancy rate of about 20%.

State facilities are operating at about 70% capacity while private prisons in Colorado are being utilized at a higher rate of about 91% capacity, according to data Becker presented.

Becker explained how different facilities house inmates convicted of less to more severe crimes; a Level 5 facility houses higher-risk inmates than a Level 4 facility, and Level 1 facilities house low-risk inmates. Becker said the Bent and Crowley private prisons are roughly comparable to a Level 3 facility's inmate population.

Level 1 facilities are holding the least amount of inmates, partially due to the risks presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Level 5 facilities are housing the highest number of inmates.

Projections forecast that the state's prison population will climb from 14,500 in 2020 to 16,154 in 2021.

In comparison to a Level 3 facility, Bent and Crowley correctional facilities operate on average of a third cheaper, Becker said. Bent County Correctional Facility operates at a cost of $61.78 million and Crowley County Correctional Facility costs $62.28 million annually.

"Sex offender treatment, drug treatment, cognitive behavior therapy. State facilities tend to have a lot more of those programs than the privates do," said Becker. "The privates simply are not paid to have those facilities in their program components. The other significant factor in components of price is the cost of staffing. The floated cost of a correctional officer in state facilities is around $72,000 a year with benefits. Comparable figure for private facilities is around $42,000. There is a substantial cost difference in staffing between private and state-run facilities."

Becker said the difference in wages makes it difficult for private prisons to retain staffing. The Bent and Crowley facilities experience turnover at a rate "in excess of 50% annually" because people leave positions there to work a state facilities that pay better.

There are other issues that raise uncertainty about Colorado's future prison population that the prison utilization study still needs to address, Becker said.

Issues include:

  • Questions about whether the prison population will return to a normal growth curve
  • Parole and probation rates are down
  • Recent statute and policy changes (many drug crimes being reduced to misdemeanors)
  • Crime trends (violent crime rates have increased but property and drug crime rates have declined substantially)
  • The state commission on criminal juvenile justice is set to reexamine the entire sentencing system
  • The state's budget crisis and budget reductions
  • How long COVID-19 lasts and how it is managed in the prison population
  • The need to move inmates from facility to facility in order for them to become eligible for parole
  • The need to align capacity with population security and program needs
  • Colorado's female prison population is at its lowest level in years; only two facilities for females are open now and only one may be needed in the future if that trend continues
  • Possible centralization of closed custody housing; special needs housing for geriatric inmates, mentally ill inmates and such

Employment and income

Gabe Preston of RPI Consulting reviewed jobs and income factors and provided information during the hearings about the effects of Crowley and Bent county correctional facilities on local government and service providers. He described both counties as being in rough spots for employment and labor-generated income.

"It's been kind of rough going for Crowley County," Preston said. "The jobs have been flat for decades. When we look at the basic indicators, Crowley County is behind and lower than the state in general."

Preston said the balance between labor income and non-labor income (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and other types of income) is skewed, where more income received by residents of Bent and Crowley counties is generated through social support programs as opposed to labor-generated income.

The two private prisons provide a source for labor-generated income in their counties and serve as job sources for neighboring counties such as Pueblo and Otero.

Based on numbers provided to RPI Consulting by CoreCivic, Crowley County Correctional Facility has about 253 jobs, which amounts to more than $16 million in payroll at roughly $65,000 per job, said Preston.

The $65,000 average annual wage is significantly higher than Crowley County's average earnings per job of roughly $40,000.

Annual wages for people employed at Bent County Correctional Facility are $58,000, significantly higher than the average wage of other jobs in Bent County of $33,000.

The private prison in Bent County employed 232 people in 2018 and 228 people in 2019.

Preston shared a spreadsheet provided by CoreCivic that shows the area distribution of where employees at both facilities live. Fourteen percent of Bent/Crowley private prison employees live in Bent County (67 Bent County resident-held jobs at either facility), which Preston said comprises more than $4 million and 4.1% of all all labor income in Bent County.

Similarly, 16.6% of the CoreCivic labor force in Southeast Colorado resides in Crowley County. Even larger chunks of people employed by the private prisons live in neighboring Pueblo and Otero counties. More than 21% of employees at either facility consider Pueblo County their home, while 29.4% of employees live in Otero County.

"Otero County is part of this study," Preston added. "We're not looking so closely at their local government services impacts, because that's not where the facilities are, but they have a lot of others of these sorts of economic impacts."

Bent County Correctional Facility effects on local government and community services

As Preston explained during the Crowley County public input hearing, both Bent and Crowley correctional facilities provide funding for a significant portion of core county services. In Bent County, the correctional facility represents 17.4% of the total assessed property value in the county, which translates to about 9% of the general fund.

That same rate is true for road and bridge and social services funds.

"There's a retirement fund that's funded in large part by property tax," said Preston. "There's the correctional facility fund, which was negotiated by the county a long time ago, it's based on a per diem for the inmates. It used to float with the number of inmates, but it has since been fixed. So that's $511,000 per year. That's a very flexible fund."

"The counties in Colorado are required to do so much, there's really very little money left over for discretionary spending. Community projects, capital investments ... to provide cash match for grants and to build things like the community center. It's over half a million dollars of very rare money in county government that can be used flexibly."

Just as CoreCivic makes local purchases and stimulates local business in Crowley County, it does so in Bent County. The Bent County sales tax rate is 1%, but Preston said it isn't something they want to forget about in addition to the private prison employees, who also spend money in the local economies.

The Bent County Correctional Facility generates about a quarter of property tax revenues that are received by Las Animas School District.

As for utilities, which require service revenues to operate, the water fund receives a quarter of its revenue from charging Bent County Correctional Facility.

"All told, the city utilities fund, 24% of that revenue is from Bent County Correctional Facility for their monthly payments," said Preston.

As in Crowley County, the fire protection and ambulance district relies on property tax revenues and service fees. There are about 24 ambulance transports a year for inmates from the Bent County private prison. The fees from those rides add up to approximately $120,000, which is more than a third of the revenue for that fund, Preston said.

Overall, core services in Bent County receive about $2.5 million from property tax revenues from Bent County Correctional Facility.

Crowley County Commissioners and members of RPI Consulting hosted a virtual public input hearing Monday evening to reveal findings of a prison utilization study conducted this year.

Crowley County Correctional Facility effects on local government and community services

The Bent and Crowley correctional facilities provide a solid number of jobs to their communities, but the municipalities and counties rely on them in other ways, too. A significant portion of core services in Bent and Crowley counties are dependent on property tax revenue paid by the CoreCivic private prisons.

"One of the things I learned very quickly, to keep in mind, Crowley County Correctional Facility is taxed like a private business," said Preston. "It's providing a public service, but it's providing that service as a business. It's taxed the same. When we looked at the assessed valuation of the Crowley County Correctional Facility, it is about 40% (in 2019) of all assessed valuations in the county."

Preston observed that CoreCivic makes purchases in Crowley County that contribute sales tax revenues to various funds. He said those sales taxes add up over a year to over $15,000 in revenue to the county. The county charges Crowley County Correctional Facility fees of about $66,000.

"When you add all that together, it's around 20% of the general fund revenue that comes from Crowley County Correctional Facility," said Preston.

EMS services, which include fire and rescue, is more dependent on property tax revenues from the Crowley private prison than some other departments, Preston said. The prison alone generates 30% of revenues for the county's EMS and fire protection fund.

Thanks to a mill levy override passed by county voters, Crowley County School District receives about $300,000 annually in addition to revenue that's above what is allocated by the state. The private prison in Crowley County generates about $125,000 of that revenue.

"When we add all of this up, when we stack up these different revenues on top of each other, it adds up to about $1.8 million in annual revenues," Preston said. "There are water conservancy districts that look out for big-picture water supply and projects for the county. Those are paid for by property taxes. Black Hills Energy — CoreCivic shared with us some of their expenditures. They come out to about $400,000 a year that they pay Black Hills for electric and gas. There are already challenges with Black Hills capacity ... this will make it harder for them to justify investing in the area. It's a member-owned organization and they have to be thinking of their members all the time. It adds up to quite a lot of revenue on an annual basis."

At each hearing, after Becker and Preston's presentations Bent and Crowley prison wardens spoke about the services their facilities provide to communities of the lower Arkansas Valley, including to inmates. Employees from each facility also gave their perspective from working in the prisons on the value the facilities present to them and their families.

Commissioners present at each meeting had the opportunity to voice their thoughts and raise questions before members of the public who phoned in or logged in virtually were given the floor.

Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@ljtdmail.com. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.